Getting around and on-board entertainment
While in Pyongyang you will invariably have the opportunity to take a ride on the metro and you might even get to experience a short ride on a trolley bus. Such trips are very much provided as ‘things to do’ as opposed to being a way to get to somewhere. I have prepared separate reviews (on my Pyongyang page) on both as things to do. That said, my metro ride was longer than the normal two – three station experience. We actually travelled five stops with the specific purpose of getting to the Arch of Triumph and Kim Il-sung Stadium in addition to admiring and experiencing the metro system itself.
Unless you are on a special train tour, your mode of transport will be a tour bus. This tour bus will pick you up at the airport and drive you everywhere until it drops you at the airport for train station for your departure from North Korea.
Our bus, of Chinese origin, was spacious, clean and well maintained. We had a forty plus seater for around 20 people including guides meaning that everyone had two seats.
Thankfully and perhaps surprisingly, given the Authorities propensity to sell North Korea and its Leaders at every opportunity possible there was no television on the bus. It was equipped with an excellent audio broadcast cum karaoke system. Our guides turned out to be excellent singers and entertained us with a number songs throughout the trip including a beautiful rendition of “Arirang” a traditional Korean folk song lamenting the departure of dear friends (over the mountain pass).
When we were not admiring the sights outside, sleeping or singing songs various of our group took up archery within and without (picture 2) the bus. The archery set was acquired at a souvenir shop outside Pyongyang. Initially frowned upon by the guides, it wasn’t long until they were in on the fun too (picture 3).
Not only are chartered buses used to move foreign tourists around they are also used to move North Korean delegations and other groups around (picture 4). Its rather different to see hotel “car” parks full of buses instead of cars. I understand they have a special fleet of buses with darkened windows to transport members of the Supreme People’s Assembly (Parliament) around when they are in Pyongyang.
Hmmm I wonder where that koala hanging in the front of our bus (picture 5) came from ?
Getting out of the DPRK by Air
If eligible to do so, I actually recommend leaving the DPRK by train. See by separate review “Getting out of the DPRK by train”.
If you do leave by air, repeat, in reverse, the process for getting in – outlined in my review “Getting into the DPRK by Air”. Yes, you will have a rerun of the hamburger experience.
As with everything else in the DPRK everything will be organised for you.
You will be taken to Pyongyang airport by bus at which time your passport and tourist card will be returned to you. You will have to surrender your Tourist Card on departure so if you want a copy take a photo before arriving at the airport.
As when you arrive no entry will be made in your passport.
While it is possible that officials will go through you North Korea photographs and ask you to delete those deemed inappropriate it is unlikely that this will happen if you leave by air.
Getting into the DPRK – By Air
Two airlines fly into North Korea, the DPRK national airline, Air Koryo and Air China. Invariably you will fly in from Beijing to Pyongyang though I read that a few tourists enter from Vladivostok. The airline also has a small number of other international routes (not currently used by tourists).
Citizens of all countries with the exception of South Korea can fly into North Korea so long as they are on an official tour and in possession of a passport and tourist card.
We flew from Beijing on Air Koryo (which is the one I really wanted to use and the one I recommend you aim for). Its fleet consists of a number of aging Russian planes. As neither Air Koryo non Air China has a daily service the one you will use will depend on the day you enter North Korea. As tickets are booked and paid for by tour companies I have no idea how much flights cost – you cant just rock up and buy a ticket.
Air Koryo, in most airline surveys, ranks as one of the worlds worst airlines. It is the only airline in the world deemed bad enough to earn a 1-star rating from airline reviewer SkyTrax. I believe this ranking is totally unjustified and could list multiple worse airlines. While the food was disgusting everything else was top notch.
As our visit coincided with the Pyongyang Marathon and the 102nd Birthday celebrations of Kim Il-sung, the deceased but eternal president of the country, extra flights were laid on and we departed at 8am - some 5hrs earlier than the regular departure time for the short (less than 2 hours) flight to Pyongyang. The flight was full and apart from a few accompanying guides I imagine 99% of the passengers had never been to North Korea before. One could sense a distinct air of excitement coupled with an equally strong sense of apprehension on this trip into one of the last unknowns and most certainly the most secretive and misunderstood country on earth. Were we all mad?
As soon as you step of the air-bridge you are immediately trust into North Korea right there on the tarmac in Beijing. For me, the whole experience brought back memories of travelling via Aeroflot from Dublin to Moscow some thirty years ago.
Air hostesses and stewards welcome you in uniforms adorned with the obligatory pin/badge commemorating leaders Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il and patriotic, revolutionary, state approved, marching music wafts in the aisles prior to take-off and landing. I found the crew to be genuinely friendly and helpful and a world removed from the jaded trolley-dollies with fake smiles I have become accustomed to on Qantas and most other western airlines.
Reflecting back on the flight, I think the plane was the only confined place I was in throughout my ten day trip which did not have pictures of the Leaders hanging up as if keeping and eye on proceedings or providing inspiration for the assembled comrades. We did, of course, have our own individual pictures of the current leader Kim Jung-un courtesy of the complementary English language Pyongyang Times (which he, perhaps not surprisingly, adorns on a weekly basis) in addition to other approved and wholesome reading material extolling the virtues of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea.
Food was eagerly anticipated, not because anyone was hungry as we had all (with the benefit of advance knowledge) breakfasted in Beijing, but rather because we wanted to see if it really was a hamburger and if it really did taste as bad as we anticipated. It was indeed a burger wrapped in greaseproof paper akin to that used by McDonalds on its cheeseburgers though that I assume was coincidental unless, off course, McDonalds stole the idea from Air Koryo. Goodness knows what the pattie contained it could have been anything but it certainly was not beef. A few people persevered and ate the whole thing washed down by equally interesting tasting cider. I, like the majority of passengers, got about half-way though the thing before admitting defeat.
All in all, a wonderful flight and a great insight into what the next ten days had in store. if eligible to do so, I do recommend you leave North Korea by train for another great experience. See my seperate review - Getting out of the DPRK by Train
On arrival in Pyongyang we alighted via steps and were bused to the terminal building but not before having ample time to photograph the plane and surroundings, an opportunity that almost everyone availed of – it’s not everyday your fly Air Koryo. As fair is fair, we were filmed and photographed alighting the plane by hidden, but not terribly well hidden, officials.
The airport terminal, currently undergoing renovations, is basic though entirely functional as were immigration and customs procedures and officers.
The first of many photography warnings issued to members of our group was delivered in the customs area – photography within this part of the terminal building is “forbidden” – a word we would all become very familiar with over the next ten days.
Already we knew this would be a fantastic and memorable trip.Related to:
Getting out of the DPRK by Train
If you are an American you will leave North Korea by air. Americans, naturally, cannot be trusted to behave for five hours without a guide. All other nationals have the option to leave North Korea by train, as we did. Those leaving by train now have the option to do a stopover at Sinuiju right on the border with China. If you don’t take this option, though I recommend you do, you will continue on from Sinuiju to the Chinese border city of Dandong where you can alight or continue on through to Beijing.
The full trip to Beijing from Pyongyang takes around 24 hrs. Pyongyang to Sinuiju takes around 5 hours while the short hop from Sinuiju to Dandong takes a couple of hours, most of which is spent passing though North Korean immigration and customs procedures. Trains connecting through to Beijing run about three – four times a week and as tickets can only be secured via your tour company I do not know the cost of this train trip.
As with all other travel with the DPRK, our tour bus took us from the hotel to the train station in Pyongyang (a short 10 minute ride). En-route, our passports and Tourist Cards were returned. I actually cannot recall if train tickets were distributed on the bus or at the train station but suffice to say we were each given one. On arrival at the station we were shepherded into a rather posh (by North Korean standards) waiting lounge – replete with sofas and chairs, the back of which were covered by rather unattractive crocheted seat protectors.
At the appointed hour (not a long wait but sufficient for me to walk into and toss over a brochure display) we were led out onto the platform for boarding. At this point the train backed in to the platform (picture 1) which precluded my getting a photo of the engine. I am thus unsure if we were hauled by a Chinese or North Korean locomotive. I suspect it was a Chinese locomotive and not one of the standard Korean locos depicted in picture 3 attached. There were no further opportunities to see the engine.
One’s seat on the train is determined by one’s final destination. The train comprised a number of Chinese carriages, a North Korean dining car and two North Korean carriages. Those, including us, leaving the train at Sinuiju were assigned seats in a North Korean carriage. The North Korea carriages (six berth sleepers) are much less luxurious than the Chinese carriages though the latter could not be deemed luxurious either.
That said, our cabin (picture 4) in the North Korea carriage was perfectly adequate for a five hour journey most of which would be spent in the dining car anyway. Clean toilets were located at the end of each carriage.
We were lucky to have a cabin to ourselves and the journey itself was very pleasant (and guideless! We almost felt undressed) though countryside readied for planting of the seasons rice crop (picture 5) and very similar to the scenery encountered elsewhere in the countryside on our trip. I sensed less military presence as we journeyed north though the towns and villages were as dull and drab as elsewhere outside Pyongyang. Apart from a few chickens, ducks, goats and the occasional beast of burden attached to a plough no livestock was in evidence. Again, while I saw very few tractors and the like the quality/uniformity of ploughing suggested that a substantial part of it had been done with tractors as opposed to human or animal effort.
The track was of good quality making for a very smooth journey with stations basic though functional and not unlike those in other developing countries apart from the images of the Great and Dear Leaders (Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il) which were liberally displayed.
A fixed menu lunch is available on the train (5Euros) with beer (including Heineken) and a limited range of other drinks available for purchase. The food was surprising good and indeed some of the best we had during our trip. Ironically photographs were not permitted in the dining car – I was reprimanded for attempting to take one. Technically photography is not permitted anywhere on the train or out of the train windows.
One word of caution, the dining car represents a sort of 'no-mans' land between the Korean and Chinese parts of the train. As few foreigners alight at Sinuiju staff may try redirecting you back to the Chinese section of the train from the dining car, assuming that’s where you belong. That said a few of our friends from the Chinese carriages visited us and had hassles getting back though 'no-mans' land into the Chinese part of the train. If you are going to wander around the train, do so well before you get to the border area as the train is split at this point. On arrival in Sinuiju, the trains first and only stop in North Korea, troops surround the Chinese part of the train which is secured and locked – lest everyone tries to defect into North Korea! Just make sure you are in the right section of the train by this point.
Should you continue on into China, North Korean customs and immigration formalities are carried out on the train at Sinuiju station. This can take over two hours before the train continues to Dandong in China (approx. 2 kms) where Chinese formalities are carried out rather more quickly. Be aware that there is a much higher chance that officials will go through your photos here than if you leave the country by plane. I later heard that one lady was asked to delete nearly half her photos but nearly everyone else escaped a 'photograph inspection'.
Sinuiju station, were we alighted, looked like a bomb had had just hit it. It is actually being refurbished and extended so to be fair it is currently a building site with only one small part of the refurbishment having been completed at the time of my visit. Yes you have guessed it – the entrance hall which displays the obligatory pictures of the Leaders. Talking of which, a giant bronze statue of Kim Il-sung outside the station was not available for viewing due to a refurbishment which will, per our guides, also see the addition of a bronze Kim Jong-il.
I will provide details of how we actually got from Sinuiju to Dandong (by bus) in a separate review and I will also write a separate review on Pyongyang Train station which in itself is quite an impressive building.Related to:
Getting into DPRK
As many of the other tips have commented on, there are a few weekly flights to P'yongyang via Beijing, Shenyang, Russia and Macau. All flights are operated by Air Kyoro.
There is also a train that comes from China, passing through Dandong boarder over the Yalu River.
But you will need an invitation Visa to enter into DPRK. Processing time can be ~1 month or longer. Contact the North Korean travel agency, "KITC" - Korean International Travel Company for details. You will have to spend a day or two in Beijing in order to pick up your Visa at the DPRK Consulate, therefore additional time and two-entry Chinese Visa will be required.
D.P.R. of Korea
Tel: (+850-2) 18111 ext. 8901, 8574, 8283
Tel: (+850-2) 3818859, 3817201, 3817202, 3818901
Fax: (+850-2) 3817607, 3814645
Or as most do, since you will enter and tour as a group, go through a foreign agency and let them do the work. There are a few in England, Spain, Germany, etc. that offer packages. But in the USA, there is only one that I know of, Asia Pacific Travel Ltd (http://www.northkorea1on1.com/).
Update - Starting January 2010, American tourists will be allowed:
1) to visit throughout the year, just like all other nationalities (except South Koreans);
2) to stay in the DPRK for longer times with an 8 to 10 day stay being okay; and
3) will now be charged the same prices as Europeans.
However, Americans are still not allowed to take the train to/from China like all other nationalities.
Pyongyang to Beijing train
We left Pyongyang on a train bound for Beijing at shortly after 10am in the morning. The last two carriages on this train where going all the way while the rest of the train would terminate at the Chinese border at Dandong. There were 12 people in my tour party, so we had three 4-berth compartments. Just before we departed, we said our goodbyes to our two tour guides who gave us back our mobile phones which were taken off us when we went through security checks after we had arrived at Pyongyang airport. The train itself was fine and it seems to be OK to take photos from it as long as you're not too blatant. The train has a buffet car we tried out where the food was OK - fish, rice, veg etc. We arrived at the border at about 4pm, after going through mostly flat and plain landscapes of rice paddy fields, and this is where the fun began. North Korean border guards got on border and took our passports with them to be checked. This took some time. A guard then came to our compartment and asked for camera's. This wasn't a good sign. He started with mine and I had a horrible few minutes sitting opposite him thinking that he would delete all my pictures. Lucky for me, he started going through a couple of thousand photo's I had taken in China at the beginning and so didn't have time to get to the one's I had taken in North Korea. What a relief!!! We got our passports back and went over the river that flows between North Korea and China. The difference between the two countries is stark.
This was one of the main things I was looking forward to in Pyongyang - a ride on the city's metro. Firstly, we entered down some steps off a street into Yonggwang station which is located just to the north of the main overland railway station. We hung around by some ticket barriers waiting for our guides to get coin tokens which cost 5 won each (about 4 US cents). We were shown an electrically operated map on the wall which showed us 2 lines - the north-south Chollima line (named after a mythical flying horse, the Korean Pegasus) and east-west Hyoksin (Renovation) line. When you pressed a certain button at the button of the map, the relevant station would light up to tell you its location - futuristic stuff! There are 17 known stations altogether, although it is believed that more lines and secret stations exist for military and government officials. Stations have names like Paradise (Rakwon), Triumph (Jonsung), Renovation (Hyoksin) and Reunification (Tongli) which beat our boring station names like Baker Street and Paddington on the London Underground! The whole metro system is entirely underground and is the world's deepest with many stations being more than 100 metres below the surface. We were lead down a step, long escalator with no advertising on the walls unlike any other metro system I've been on and reached the platforms which features lovely wall murals and sculptures. The best thing at this particular station are the enormous chandeliers which are coloured pink, green and yellow. A train came in to the station whilst we were taking everything in and taking photo's and a whole crowd of well dressed people got off and walked past us without taking much notice of us in jeans, t-shirts and shorts! It is said that all of this is staged for each tourist visit and it did have a Trueman Showesque about it. Make the most of this as it'll be your only time that you get to mix with 'everyday' North Koreans. Yonggwang station features columns that are shaped like Olympic torches with arches sprouting out of the top, which look like flames. After spending about 10-15 minutes on the concourse, we got on a train which had the portraits of the Kim's looking down on you and then got off at the next station. I've added a short video taken by tour cameraman. More excellent information can be found by visiting the website below.
Trolleybuses & trams
Both the trolleybuses and trams are just like the ones I saw in St Petersburg. The tram system runs for 53km (33 miles) whilst the trolleybus system runs for 150km (93 miles). One thing that I noticed is that waiting passengers seem to face in the opposite direction to where the tram or trolleybus was coming from, which I didn't understand and thought was a bit strange. Also, given the power shortages that happen in the city, they must have plenty of delays. Of course, you're not allowed the opportunity to ride of them.
Our tour bus
This was our rather inconspicuous tour bus throughout our tour around North Korea. It stands out like a sore thumb doesn't it?! We were allowed to open the windows in order to take photos from it which I thought wouldn't be possible to do and as a consequence, I took some 600 photos of Pyongyang alone. Funny thing is, given that the Japanese occupied Korea and the hardships that they brought on the people, the bus is actually Japanese and right-hand drive. It even had Japanese Yokohama tyres.
Flight from Beijing
Apart from Air China, the only other way in to North Korea by air is with their national carrier - Air Koryo - infamous for being the only airline to be rated 1 star currently by Skytrax. As part of my trip itinerary, I flew in from Beijing with Air Koryo on an old looking Russian plane called an Ilyushin II-62M that, I think, was built in the 1970's. The first photo of it is at Beijing whilst the 2nd and 3rd are at Pyongyang. I sat next to two German ladies, one of which has been working in North Korea for the last couple of years helping them out with agriculture as they have suffered from bad floods in recent years. The plane was surprisingly fairly full with a mixture of western and Chinese tourists and businessmen and North Koreans allowed out on good behaviour in order to do business with the Chinese.
I got given two pieces of reading material - the first was called "The Pyongyang Times" which was a very thin A3 newspaper with a few photos on the front of Kim Jong Il visiting some industrial complex. The date at the top was Saturday, May 31, Juche 97 (2008). Juche is the official state ideology of North Korea which was developed by Kim Il Sung. Juche 97 is 97 years after his birth in 1912. The second piece of reading material was a nice large A3 glossy magazine with some very nice photo's, some of which look very staged and look like they could have come straight out of a 1970's fashion catalogue. The first sentence I read from it was "Korea fell into ruins owing to the three-year war (June 1950-July 1953) provoked by the US imperialists." And this was even before we had even landed in North Korea! (there's a website you can visit - see below. Click on "The Pyongyang Times" or “Korea" for online past editions).
Food was served during the flight which was rice, some kind of pork and potato dish with sauce, salad, sponge cake and tinned like fruit. It would have been better if it wasn't all stone cold. Drinks were also served and I helped myself to my first introduction to North Korean beer which was frothy and strong tasting. We came in to land over 100's of rice paddy fields with dark brown soil in the middle of nowhere with just a few buildings dotted around, after being in the air for a couple of hours. We all then got off and headed to the small terminal building full of guards and airport officials. Passport control was a breeze and then I had to wait for my bag which was then scanned through an X-ray machine. I was asked if I was carrying a mobile phone or a laptop to which I replied no and I then walked out to where my fellow tour members were waiting beside a small bus. I managed to get my copy of Lonely Planet Korea through but I had to show my camera and iPod which I then took through with me. Easy! I was expecting a full bag search and for it to take ages but there was no such thing. People even got their laptops back but mobile phones were confiscated, only to be returned at the end of the trip.
Train to Beijing
We took the train leaving the DPRK from Pyongyang to Beijing. The train leaves at 10:00 AM and takes about 22-23 hrs. The cabins were quite comfortable and there is a dining car. The train stops in Sinuiju (DPRK side) for immigration around 3PM. We were able to get off the train here for an hour and had a beer at a microbrewery in the station. The train then crosses the Yalu river to Dandong for Chinese immigration and they attach more cabins and a Chinese dining car. Altogether it took about 3 hrs for immigration on both sides. The train continues overnight and arrives at the Beijing main station around 9AM.
You can't take local transport
Buses are usually overcrowded. Trams often stand in one place due to electricity shortage. People just sit outside and wait. Or sitting inside and wait. Or walk. You'll see so many people walking.
Local transport is just for your camera, not for you.
When you are touring through the cities or the country side, you will no doubt notice a sever lack of vehicles on the road.
Reasons are simple mostly... economics. Only a select few can afford cars, and even fewer can afford fuel. Fuel is the most common concession during negotiations with foreign countries.
However, if you thought there were few cars on the road on most days, Sunday will truly show you the possibilities. It is illegal to drive on Sunday in DPRK, unless you have prior authorization. That means that only the rich and/or influential people will be on the roads on Sunday.
As another point of control over the masses, DPRK institutes a 6-day work week. The one day they have as holiday (Sunday) is limited due to the fact that they cannot freely travel anywhere. Buses are full on these days and times required for a day trip negate most of the options.
Your guides will take you everywhere
Regardless of what DPRK government publications say, or the tourist maps say, there is no way that you will use any public transportation.
Your tours in P'yongyang will likely include a visit to the city Metro, where you will ride only one section and see the stations on both ends.
Buses for locals are common and relatively cheap (less than $0.05), but you will not be allowed to use these. Taxis must exist, because I saw one at the airport during my five days in DPRK (but there was no driver, only the parked car).
Anywhere that you go will be escorted and coordinated by your guides. You will not even be able to walk the city without escort.
The upside to the transportation in DPRK, is that you will likely have the road all to yourself. Extremely few people can afford cars, even fewer the fuel (we even saw a truck that ran by means of a wood-fired steam engine). Pedestrians and bicycles will be most common all the way to the farthest corners of the country.
One stop only
As a sight seeing attraction you might be allowed to ride one stop with the Pyongyang Metro.
The stations are very deep in the ground and have mostly very beautiful stations with propaganda mosaics and nice lighting.
You will not have the chance to talk to people as your guides will watch you. Also ask your guides first, if you want to take pictures of people.
Price for a ride is about 3 cents.... paid by your guides.
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Pyongyang, North Korea
Satisfaction: Very Good
Good for: Families
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